Global racing on the rise

Perhaps because it’s affected less by 150 years of conservative yachting tradition, ocean racing is evolving faster than most other branches of competitive sailing. True, the America’s Cup has, for the last two cycles, been contested in reasonably modern yachts, and ultra-high-performance skiff racing is about to makes its Olympic debut in the guise of the one design 49er class. On the other hand, when it comes to media exposure and broad public interest, the high-profile global races have been running roughshod over pretty much everything that inshore sailing can offer up. Indeed, the next few years will probably bring a changing of the guard, with the America’s Cup slipping out of top spot in the pecking order of international sailing events. Its replacement will almost certainly be an around-the-world ocean race, and likely contenders for number-one spot (in terms of sponsorship dollars, media attention, and overall public following) are the nine-leg Volvo Ocean Race (formerly the Whitbread), the solo, non-stop Vendee Globe, and a new event of grandiose scope that’s known simply as The Race.

For ocean voyaging sailors, whether directly involved in racing or not, there are enormous positive spin-offs from the increasing stature of long-range ocean racing. Everything from weather routing to sail -handling gear is improving by leaps and bounds, thanks in large part to the increasingly rigorous demands of ocean racing. At the same time, a new breed of voyaging yachts with low displacement-to-length ratios, easy-to-handle rigs, and, in some cases, moveable ballast has emerged as a direct result of open class racing developments. And, over a longer time frame, there’s a good chance that catamarans will gradually take over from ballasted monohulls as the bread-and-butter choice for serious voyaging. Certainly their combination of extremely shallow draft, sailing/living comfort, and easy performance is tough to match with a conventional ballasted sailboat. Again, the design and handling of modern sailing multihulls is largely the result of lessons learned from ocean racing.

Now that pro sailors and event organizers are developing a taste for mass media attention and big money sponsorship, the possibility of future “stunt sailing extravaganzas” cannot be entirely dismissed. Widespread attrition, first in the 1996-’97 Vendee Globe, and most recently in the 1998-’99 Around Alone are clear evidence that the open class monohull skippers have been sacrificing reliability and seaworthiness in their quest for greater speed.

Race organizersobviously shaken by the mayhem of the last two around-the-world solo eventshave agreed on more comprehensive safety features for the open 60s (although the handful of older boats still racing have, to date, been grandfathered in without substantive modifications). If these new safety regulations succeed in their purpose, future races should be more competitive than ever because a higher proportion of the entries can be expected to survive and finish. Rather less assured will be the safety and ultimate seaworthiness of entries for The Race, because the new generation of mostly 30- to 40-meter multihulls that’s shaping up for this event will be way out in uncharted territory when it comes to sheer size, gear loads, and, of course, raw speed in strong winds.

In the wake of Around Alone

The most recent solo circumnavigation turned out to be a race in two halves. What began as the most closely contested global solo yet abruptly collapsed into a basic survival contest when a majority of the top skippers came to grief during the latter stages of their Southern Ocean sojourn.

After the dust had settled, Italian Giovanni Soldini, age 32, sailing the Finot 60 Fila, was the first non-French sailor to win a solo round-the-world event, trimming four days off the course record set by Christophe Auguin in 1994-’95. With the exception of a routing blunder that put him five days off the pace in the first leg, Soldini’s weather strategy and vessel management was consistently brilliant. More dramatic than the win itself, however, was his rescue of fellow competitor Isabelle Autissier after her boat turned turtle during the approach to Cape Horn.

Marc Thiercelin, the only other Class I competitor to complete the course, lost his mast shortly after Autissier’s capsizea final blow to the competitive racing in Class I. Thanks to outstanding seamanship, he made it to the Falklands where a undersized temporary mast was fitted, enabling him to finish leg 3. However, saddled by 13 days’ lost time and bedeviled by a firestorm of controversy concerning his failure to communicate directly with race headquarters during the Autissier rescue, Thiercelin’s second place in Around Alonethe same position he’d achieved in the last Vendeewas clearly a bitter disappointment.

Much like Soldini, Class II winner Jean-Pierre Mouligne stood head and shoulders above the others as he amassed an eight-day lead over second-place Mike Garside during the first three legs. Garside, a former paratrooper and middle-aged newcomer to sailboat racing, finally got his potent swing-keel open 50 into top gear and won the fourth leg, although Mouligne easily retained the overall victory.

The upstart American Brad Van Liew showed numerous flashes of brilliance, but he eventually lost his mast soon after the start of leg 4. After returning to port for a new rig, he resumed racing, and ultimately secured third place on the Class II podium.

In the early stages of Around Alone, Class I had boasted five fully competitive 60-footers (out of a starting field of seven). Class II included three very competent 50-foot entries, plus a remarkable shoe-string 40-footer skippered by Viktor Yazykov with speed far beyond anyone’s expectations. Modern satellite tracking and data communications meant that racers were constantly aware of one another’s every move, and the psychological pressure was utterly relentless. As a result, gear and bodies were pushed far beyond anything experienced in previous solo circumnavigations. In the end it was equipment failures, exhaustion, and mental lapses that decimated the fleet, mostly during a catastrophic mid-race stretch that saw five out of the top seven yachts on the leader board either out of the race entirely, or seriously crippled, and removed from overall contention.

For the second time in her 10-year solo racing career, Isabelle Autissier lost a yacht in the Southern Oceanthis time under shockingly benign conditions. Soldini, about 100 miles away at the time, was quick to divert to coordinates provided by race headquarters, and, after a brief search, located PRB just a mile or so from its predicted position. Autissier emerged through an escape hatch after Soldini attracted her attention by throwing a hammer at the bottom of her overturned hull, and was soon aboard Fila, where she remained as a passenger for the remainder of leg 3.

As has often been the case in previous races, these dramatic events took place in a particularly remote portion of the Southern Ocean west of Cape Horn that is out of the range of shore-based rescue aircraft and only occasionally traversed by commercial shipping.

Some commentators have suggested that, had the rescue efforts failed, Autissier’s death could have dropped the entire solo racing game in its tracks. However, I doubt that the loss of any sailoreven one as famous as Isabellecould stop this juggernaut, but there’s also little question that the stakeholders were fortunate to dodge a bullet. Pretty much everyone accepts that this is an inherently risky business, and the deaths of other famous sailors such as Rob James, Gerry Roufs, and Eric Taberly have always been taken in stride.

Still, there’s no doubt that open class racing will once again be called to task, particularly considering the relatively benign conditions at the time of Autissier’s capsize: winds less than 25 knots and only moderate seas. Stark images of PRB floating inverted and apparently as stable as a church regardless of the canting keel fully inclined to port have been distributed around the world. PRB had simply gybe-broached while surfing down a wave face under autopilot control; a mishap experienced repeatedly by every Around Alone skipper, and one that is normally not terminal. However, this time, the momentum of the boat and the play of forces involved was obviously enough to heel the boat past its angle of vanishing stabilitycalculated at 122° under the existing conditions, according to her designers. Once turtled, the flat seas actually became a liability, because the waves lacked sufficient energy to heel the capsized hull far enough for the offset keel to lever her upright. Like Gerry Rouf’s Groupe LG, there’s a good chance that PRB will still be floating upside down six months after the disaster.

Advocates for the open 60 class have been quick to point out that PRB and Groupe LG belonged to a generation of designs from around 1994-95 that exhibited the worst self-righting characteristics of any open 60s. At the time, skippers were avidly seeking extra speed by minimizing weight, and the only easy place to trim weight was from the keel bulb. Dead flat, camber-free decks produced a marginally lower center of gravity but contributed to greater stability upside-down than upright.

After three 60-footers capsized in the last Vendee Globe race, open class designers and skippers got together on a new series of safety recommendations. These include: a minimum angle of vanishing stability of 125° with ballast unfavorably positioned and full sail set; positive deck camber and enlarged trunk cabins; auxiliary righting mechanisms such as air bags, over-canting keels, and/or floodable bows; an increased number of watertight compartments; transom escape hatches; and additional safety equipment.

Fila was the first of the Finot designs to incorporate an over-canting keel as a capsize recovery system. Soldini used it successfully to right the boat after a violent capsize in 1997 during a transatlantic record attempt, although his friend and crewmember Andrea Romanelli died in the accident. Ironically, Isabelle Autissier considered retrofitting PRB with an airbag system before Around Alone, but left it behind after judging the device to be unworkable. Flooding the bow to destabilize an inverted boat is another untested scheme that’s obviously fraught with problems. The ideal solutionsomewhat narrower hulls with substantially heavier keel bulbs and a modest relaxation of the 10°-per-side heel limitation (measured in still water with ballast fully offset)still adds up to a bigger step than open class organizers are apparently prepared to contemplate.

Looking ahead to the Vendee

The next Vendee Globe non-stop solo race is scheduled to start November 5th, 2000. A full field of 20 entries is expected, all in up-to-date open 60s. According to Phillipe Jeantot, winner of two BOCs and chief organizer for the Vendee, the safety and qualification requirements for the millennium race will be far more stringent than in previous editions (visit for details).

Previous Vendee races have lacked competitive drama because racers quickly become widely separated and sailed in totally different weather systems. The next race, however, is likely to be a closer contest due to the much larger number of competitive entries expected and the increasing sophistication of on-board weather-routing software programs (outside routing advisors are prohibited for the Vendee). As a result, it’s fairly likely that perhaps a half dozen competitors will remain in close contact throughout the race. Extended close competition will re-create the enormous stress and fatigue reported by solo sailors in the last Around Alone, except in this case there won’t be any rest stops along the way.

Because all outside assistance is prohibited in the Vendee, boats and gear must hold together for the full 26,000 miles. This means the hardware will obviously need to be considerably more durable than some the equipment used in the recent Around Aloneduring the 1998-’99 race, for example, quite a few lightweight, Kevlar-reinforced sails failed prematurely. For the Vendee, expect a return to Spectra sails, which stretch a bit more but seem to hold up better. Likewise, look for stronger rudders, more robust keel-canting systems, and sturdier rigs. Chances are reasonably good that, if the majority of an estimated 20-boat fleet can avoid crippling breakdowns, at least a couple will still be contending for line honors in the latter stages of the race. This, of course, would be a great help in sustaining interest in an event that continues day and night for at least 100 consecutive days.

The Race: testing the limits

The Race is the dream of Bruno Peyronbest known as the first winner of the Jules Verne trophy for his 79-day circumnavigation aboard the catamaran Commodore Explorer. Fittingly, perhaps, a major sponsor of The Race is Disneylanda name long associated with flights of fancy. Certainly, it would be almost impossible to conceive of a more freewheeling challenge than a non-stop circumnavigation with no outside assistance aboard crewed sailboats of any size or type.

Naval architects are delighting in the possibilities, and several dominant themes have emerged. A handful favor ballasted monohulls, comparable to open class yachts but expanded into the 50-meter range where in theory their speed potential should match that of 30- to 40-meter multihulls. The perceived advantages of an outsized monohull are straightforward structural engineering and the self-righting potential that allows a crew to push harder without risking ultimate catastrophe. The big monohull program most likely to eventually see the light of day is a Brobdingnagian 53-meter (174-foot) vessel designed by Phillipe Briand for Lionel Pean (France) and Peder Silfverhjelm (Sweden). Unfortunately, this program has fallen behind schedule, and although the “mega-maxi” race boat still has a good chance of being built, it will not be ready in time for the first running of The Race.

To date, all three successful Jules Verne challengers (circumnavigations in less than 80 days) have been made in multihulls, and most teams aiming for The Race are planning either an enormous catamaran or trimaran. Despite the fact that the current record is held by a tri, the cat configuration is generally favored because it appears to be a little more predictable and a little less expensive. However, a 32-meter foil-stabilized trimaran designed by Guy Lombard for Loick Peyron has the earmarks of success, in large part thanks to a brilliant skipper who has dominated the 60-foot trimaran scene for the past four years.

On the maxi-catamaran front, the first all-new boat launched in a good many years is American Steve Fossett’s 30-meter PlayStation. A little smaller than most of her prospective competitors, PlayStation should benefit from an early launch date and will likely set some records during the 15 months leading up to The Race.

At least four other giant catamarans appear likely to make the start on December 31, 2000. The most unusual is Adrian Thompson’s 38-meter wave-piercing design for Pete Goss of Great Britain. This remarkable yacht also features twin aero-rigs with one freestanding mast mounted in each hull. This system should be much more controllable than a conventionally stayed rotating rig when a squall approaches from behind. It’s also a very light, “minimalist” design that will require a crew of only five. The program web site ( is refreshingly forthcoming about the details of this fantastic vessel which appears to hold particular promise as a testbed for futuristic voyaging ideas. Projected launch date is November 1999.

More mainstream in concept, but utterly remarkable in scale, is the Nigel Iren’s 38-meter cat currently under construction in France for Laurent Bourgnon. This 125-foot-long monster is slated to hit the water in August. Details are sparse, but this will likely be the largest entry in The Race.

Frenchman Gilles Ollier’s design officebest known for the Jet Services catamaran series, had already invested a great deal of R&D effort in The Race long before any prospective clients were even close to the contract-signing stage. It now appears the yard will build at least two 33-meter cats with an outside possibility of a third. Pro sailor Roman Paszke is still striving to raise sufficient funds to construct one of the Ollier cats in his native Poland. Ollier’s Multiplast yard in Brittany is building another for an anonymous syndicate, and another anonymous syndicate has an option to build as well. It seems likely that American pro sailor Cam Lewis is associated with one of these so-far confidential projects.

The former ENZA/Sun Alliance, a 92-foot Irens catamaran that began its career as TAGthe only genuinely successful maxi-cat of the 1980swill be rebuilt once again for British sailor Tony Bullimore. This time she’ll be stretched to 30 meters (98 feet) and equipped with a much lighter 35-foot wing mast. This is a relatively economical project that stands an excellent chance of making it to the starting line.

There are quite a few other proposals at the fund-raising stage, but with an estimated building time of 10 to 12 months it appears increasingly unlikely that any will be ready in time. But even if no more than a half dozen yachts ultimately start The Race, it’s sure to be a spectacle like nothing the sailing world has ever seen before. The sheer size of these yachts will enable them to carry hefty video suites to broadcast live, high-resolution programming from anywhere on the course. The projected time frame of the circumnavigation60 to 65 daysis short enough to hold widespread public attention. Indeed, promoters claim to have survey data indicating that this sailboat race would be one of the 10 most-watched TV events of 2001. Of course, if something went wrong, viewers could also be in for the unsettling prospect of watching sailors die on live TV.

But focusing on the positive, it’s easy to get excited about the prospects of The Race. The lead-up has begun with a world-wide promotional tour by Peyron’s Explorer, which recently starred at Sail Expo in San Francisco. The west/east Atlantic record of six days, 13 hours, has been held since 1988 by Serge Madec aboard Jet Services V. As the most accessible of the qualifying events for The Race, this record will be under relentless attack during the next year or so, and it could easily be lowered several times in fairly quick succession. In early July, Laurent and Lewis Bourgnon, with American sailor Cam Lewis, came heartbreakingly close aboard the 60-foot trimaran Foncia (ex-Primagaz), having averaged nearly 20 knots for the first five days. After 36 hours of sailing, success seemed almost certain, but luck ran out in a flat calm only 35 miles from the finish.

Following repairs in the wake of a serious electrical fire, the mighty PlayStation will probably attack the record sometime this fall.

The next millennium is shaping up to be a brave new world for all-out ocean racing.

Contributing editor Sven Donaldson, a former sailmaker, is a marine technical writer based on the West Coast.

By Ocean Navigator